Friday, 24 January 2014

Escaping the Gloom in Marrakesh

Dark winter days getting you down? If you're like me and have a touch of SAD - mixed in with a natural disposition to melancholy for good measure - it can be a hard slog getting through the winter months. I find myself aching - quite literally - for warmth, sunshine and skies that aren't permanently tinged a dark shade of grey. Then I remember that massive hole in my bank account, courtesy of my January tax return, and get even more depressed. Is it really a case of waiting till June before the sun comes out again or is there any way us 'normal' people - people without the sort of incomes that facilitate winter breaks to the Caribbean - can find a sunny escape that is a. budget-friendly, b. child-friendly, c. short-haul? Well, yes, sort of. 

We recently made a trip to Marrakesh which pretty much ticks the aforementioned criteria. We were lucky enough not to have to fund accommodation as we stayed with family, but I reckon Marrakesh is definitely a place to consider if you're desperate to find a budget-friendly antidote to a cold, British winter. We visited over Christmas and enjoyed gorgeous, sunny weather for the duration of our stay. December temperatures generally hover around the low to mid twenties so while it might not quite be swimming pool weather short sleeves and even shorts are definite possibilities this time of year. Leave it till February or March and the weather is perfect, with a very low chance of rain and temperatures a steady 23/24 degrees C - not bad for a short haul flight of just over 3 hours from the UK.

But is it child-friendly? In all honestly Marrakesh is probably more of a destination for grown-ups. In fact it would make the perfect location for a weekend break on your own, if you were lucky enough to find yourselves in the enviable position of having a grandparent willing to babysit for a couple of nights. With lots of regional airports now flying to Marrakesh (including Bristol, via EasyJet) you could very reasonably fit in a short weekend break here, flying out on a Friday evening and coming back on a Monday morning, for example. The city itself is pretty compact, and it's not a place so heaving with sights that you'd struggle to cover enough ground in a weekend. It's very much a place to lap up the atmosphere and enjoy getting lost in. If you have older children there is definitely appeal for them, though. You could enjoy a camel ride in the nearby suburb of the Palmeraie, for example, let them try out their haggling skills in the souk or take a trip out to the Atlas mountains to explore ancient Berber villages. But if you've got very little ones the challenge of navigating your way through the noisy, chaotic Medina might be a step too far.

On to matters financial - is Marrakesh really a budget option for a break in the sun? Compared to other places with guaranteed sunshine at this time of year, yes, it is. Average ticket prices for flights from Bristol in March are around the £49 mark, one way, or just £30 in April, if you are able to travel outside school holidays. Package deals may also work out cheaper - I recently saw an amazing deal in the Sunday travel supplements for an all inclusive package deal to a modern resort hotel, just outside the old city for £275, including flights and 7 nights accommodation. Which leads me nicely on to the question of where to stay. For an authentic Marrakesh experience you have to stay in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house characterised by its interior courtyard or garden. There are numerous riads to choose from in the Medina, which provide a wonderful oasis of calm in the heart of this atmospheric quarter. There are some very luxurious, eye-wateringly expensive riads and some very lovely but not so expensive options to choose from. If you don't end up staying in a riad many have a restaurant you can visit for dinner - this is an experience you shouldn't miss; there's something very magical about eating your tagine overlooking a tranquil pool, illuminated by twinkling Moroccan lanterns. I recommend the Riad Monceau which offers good value, authentic dishes in a stunning setting.

If you want a more contemporary, child-friendly option look out for accommodation options based in either the new town or the suburb of the Palmeraie, where you'll find resort-style complexes with swimming pools and kids' clubs. Staying somewhere like the Palmeraie offers the best of both worlds - you're near enough to the Medina to get the true Marrakesh experience, but you can also relax and catch some rays by the pool when the hustle and bustle gets too much.

So, what to do while you're in Marrakesh? All roads lead to the Djemma el Fna, the city's central square which is bustling and interesting throughout the day but which really comes to life at dusk. I recommend enjoying its exotic atmosphere from the comfort of a roof-top cafe where you can sip on a mint tea and take it all in from above. Head down to the square for a bite to eat - there are numerous stalls where you can eat everything from freshly cooked snails to delicious kebabs, cooked on the coals right in front of you. Then wander across the square to see the performers in action. Crowds surround the best acrobats, musicians and storytellers. Watch out for the sometimes over-zealous snake-charmers if you don't fancy the idea of having a snake wrapped round your neck...

A visit to the souk is a given and a great place to pick up bargains. Be prepared to haggle and also be prepared to pay perhaps more than the guide books might have you believe - the stall-owners strike a hard bargain these days now that Marrakesh has a steady stream of tourists visiting its markets all year round. The souk is arranged according to product, so one area specialises in jewellery, another in leather goods, and another in herbs and weird and wonderful medicinal treatments. Expect to get lost but remember that you'll end up back in the main square eventually. 

There aren't many true 'sights' in Marrakesh, but you should definitely take a look at the Saadian Tombs and go for a wander in the tranquil Menara Gardens. A highlight of our trip was a visit to the gorgeous Jardins Majorelle. The former home of the fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, this tranquil garden is filled with tropical plants, flowers and cacti, landscaped to compliment the rich blue hues of the garden's surrounding walls and plant pots. There's a lovely courtyard cafe here, too. 

EasyJet, Ryanair and Thomson all fly from regional UK airports to Marrakesh. It's about 20 minutes' taxi ride to the centre of town from the airport.

For useful information about visiting Marrakesh with children, take a look at Lonely Planet.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Eating Cheap, Italian Style

I was really pleased to see Italy Unpacked return to TV screens last week. Showing on BBC2 on Friday evenings, the series follows art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli as they deviate from the well-trodden tourist trail and seek out some of Italy’s best-kept secrets – hidden art treasures, exquisite buildings and generally beautiful locations that are a little less publicised in the tourist brochures. Along the way they tuck into some fantastic-looking food that is usually simple and cheap to prepare, but that is bursting with fresh and colourful goodness. In short, the programme is a real antidote to any winter blues you may be experiencing right now, whisking you far away from our rain-lashed shores to the Mediterranean sun.

Beautiful Liguria, home of pesto
Watching the first episode in the series last week reminded me just how inventive authentic Italian cooking is and that its contribution to gastronomy reaches far deeper than the watered-down version of Italian food we’re all familiar with. On last week’s programme the two presenters accompanied a spritely old lady as she went foraging in the hills above her village for wild herbs. She was a great example of how Italian cooking remains deeply rooted in the principle of "Cucina Povera" – literally, "Cooking of the Poor" – and that some of the dishes that today are regaled as being regional delicacies were born of out sheer necessity.

My own father was brought up in post-war Italy, a country absolutely ravaged by conflict where food was in much shorter supply than in the UK. When I was growing up one of my favourite things to eat was fennel – something that my own dad, like many other Italians growing up at that time, would have picked wild and eaten raw, served in slices to be dipped into olive oil with a side sprinkling of salt. Simple, quick to prepare and bursting with nutrients, this is raw food at its best and it’s a comfort food from my childhood that I still love to eat today.

In more recent times, Cucina Povera has gained a bit of a fashionable reputation, with top chefs and foodies extolling its virtues and adding their own modern twists to standards such as pesto and polenta. But I think this takes something away from the true essence of this type of cooking – it’s not about fancy gastronomy but about simple dishes prepared with imagination, using whatever is available. And absolutely nothing goes to waste. That’s why it remains relevant for those of us trying to live frugally but eat well today.
Here are some Cucina Povera standards that I recommend if you’re looking for recipes that are simple to make, high in nutrition and taste delicious…

Pea Risotto
Or ‘Risi e Bisi’ to give this risotto its Italian name. I follow a Nigella Lawson recipe from her cookbook ‘How to Eat’. It’s packed with pea-y goodness and is creamy and delicious.  Like all risottos it requires a bit of care and attention but don’t be put off – it’s worth the effort.


60g butter
Approx. 1 litre of vegetable stock
150g frozen peas
2 tbsps freshly grated parmesan (& more for serving)
Grated nutmeg
I small onion, chopped
Olive oil
200g risotto rice (eg. Arborio or Canaroli)
80 ml dry white wine.


Put about 1/3 of the butter in a large pan, melt and add the peas. Cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Remove half of the peas and put to the side. To the peas in the pan add a ladle-ful of hot stock. Put a lid on the pan and let the peas cook gently for about 5 minutes. Puree this mixture with a tablespoon of parmesan, and a pinch of nutmeg and pepper. 

Back in the pan add some more butter, alongside a drop of oil, and add the onion, cooking until soft. Add the risotto rice and stir until the rice is coated in butter. Pour in the wine and let it absorb, before adding the rest of the stock, one ladle-ful at a time. Carry on in this way for 10 minutes, then add the just sauteed peas before adding the rest of your stock, a ladle at a time. In another 8 minutes or so the rice should be cooked and the risotto creamy. If it's still a bit hard add some more liquid - some hot water from the kettle will do. 

Then mix in the pea puree and serve with a sprinkling of pepper, a little swirl of olive oil and a handful of parmesan. 


Polenta is a bit of wonder ingredient. Traditionally used in Italy as a cheap ‘filler-upper’, polenta is essentially a ground maize porridge that can be used in a variety of ways.  I use it sprinkled on my pizza bases to give them a bit of authentic crunch and you can make some amazing cakes using polenta as a flour substitute – handy if you or someone you know has a gluten intolerance. I’m going to refer you to Nigella once again and her recipe for lemon polenta cake which is absolutely delicious – take a look at the recipe here

You can eat polenta ‘wet’, as a creamy side to meat dishes,or firm – if you’ve ever eaten the Polenta chips at Jamie’s Italian you’ll know how good it tastes in this form.  You need to make up a firm polenta or use ready cooked polenta which you can then cut into chunks and fry in some olive oil. After resting on some kitchen paper, dust with salt and add to a bowl with some fresh rosemary and parmesan.

Homemade Pesto

So much nicer and authentic than the stuff in the jars. There are lots of recipes for home-made pesto, all of which are super simple and quick to make, but I like to follow Marcella Hazan's recipe which can be made in large quantities in a blender rather than with a pestle and mortar, meaning you can buy a massive bunch of basil and make up a big batch you can eat immediately or freeze. Here it is:

Ingredients (to serve 6)

100g fresh basil leaves
8 tbsps olive oil
25g pine nuts
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
50g freshly grated parmesan
2 tbsps freshly grated pecorino
40g butter, softened


Put the basil, oil, pine nuts, garlic and salt in a blender and mix on a high speed. When the ingredients are blended pour into a bowl and beat in the grated cheeses by hand. Then beat in the softened butter. 

If you are freezing do not add the butter or cheese at the second step, but add the blender mix to a jar, seal tightly and freeze. When you're ready to use your pesto, defrost and then beat in the cheeses and butter before serving.

Recipes reproduced from 'How to Eat' by Nigella Lawson and 'The Classic Italian Cookbook' by Marcella Hazan.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Top Money Saving Discoveries in 2013

Just a quick post from me today as I'm still on catch-up post Christmas and haven't had a lot of blogging time at my disposal over the past few weeks!

It's only been three months since I started Bristol Bargainista but I'd start off the new year with a round-up of my most prudent discoveries, favourite budget days out and most wallet-friendly purchases over the course of 2013...

1. Lidl

It's might be less convenient than the local Tesco, but buying store cupboard basics in Lidl has shaved pounds off our weekly grocery bill. I stock up on basics like bagels, tinned tomatoes, pasta and rice here and supplement with fresh top-ups from other supermarkets during the week. It involves a bit of extra legwork but a basic shop at Lidl averages out at £60 for us compared to a similar shop at Tesco. The wine selection is well worth checking out too.

2. Mango jeans

I've mentioned my annoyance at jeans costing so much these days in a previous post but I can't bear the thin, poor quality denim that characterises the jeans on offer at most of the high street stores. And since when did it become so difficult to find straight leg jeans? I don't mind a skinny or a boyfriend jean from time to time but as a wardrobe staple I like my jeans straight to slim cut, a shape that seems quite elusive on the high street. Thanks, therefore, to Mango, manufacturer of my favourite jean purchase last year. Their 'Alice' slim fit jeans are made of good quality, durable denim and come in the slightly vintage wash I like best. They're normally a very reasonable £30 but when I last looked they'd been reduced to just £14.99! Take a look at them here.

Beautiful Southerndown Beach

3. Free days out

Some of our favourite days out in 2013 came completely free of charge. The added benefit of a gorgeous summer further facilitated lots of free activities, and we joined the National Trust which helped to fund lots of days out over the summer holidays. We discovered a lovely new cycle route near Bristol, the Strawberry Line, which I really recommend if you and your family enjoy exploring the countryside by bike. We navigated just a short portion of the line, from Yatton to Cheddar, taking in some tranquil countryside on a route that seemed a lot quieter and more child-friendly than some of the other popular cycle paths around Bristol. Find out more about the Strawberry Line here.

We eschewed the packed beaches of Cornwall and Devon and decamped to Wales for our fill of sun, sea and sand. I can't recommend the stunning beach at Southerndown, to the south west of Bridgend, highly enough. Utterly unspoilt and devoid of tacky commercialisation, Southerndown is an idyllic spot, with miles of sand, rockpools and stunning coastal walks. While busy on sunny days it's expansive enough not to feel cramped. Bring money for the car park and come prepared with a picnic. There's just a small shack on site where you can buy tea, ice-cream and fishing rods. Find out more about Southerndown here.

Other highlights included our trip on the London cable cars and a visit to the Imperial War Museum in Manchester. A smaller sibling to the London museum, this northern outpost is free of charge and offers a manageable, well-edited introduction to the world wars for younger visitors, and tied-in nicely with our son's year 5 World War II project. 

The famous colleges of Oxford

4. Guilt-free city breaks

I've waxed lyrical about our family trip to Paris which I reckon came in at under £600 all in, but I made another budget-friendly discovery in 2013 on a trip to Oxford with a friend. Oxford doesn't appear to have any centrally located budget friendly hotels, but what it does have in abundance is colleges. If you visit out of term time (we made our trip in late July) you can stay in the college halls of residence for a fraction of the cost of a city centre hotel. We stayed at Lady Margaret Hall and while the accommodation is basic it is completely adequate for a short stay. I quite liked the academic feel of the place and eating breakfast in the rather grand, wood-panelled dining room - brought back lots of memories of my own time at Uni! 

You can pick up rooms for as little as £40 a night, including breakfast. Most colleges are well located for easy access to the centre of Oxford. Find out more at

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